Tracy Brown, director of Save the Sound, said thanks to funding from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the organization has been able to track the health of the Long Island Sound for over a decade.
“But when we issued the most recent report card on the sound, we realized based on available science, you can’t take open water quality and apply it to a bay or a harbor or cove because they’re really different systems,” Brown said. “What’s happening in Flushing Bay, in Little Neck Bay? We realized that we needed to get out and measure those locations and add those to a future report card.”
On June 21, Save the Sound launched its Unified Water Study, which will fill in the data gap for the 116 bays and harbors around Long Island Sound, which extends from eastern Queens past Connecticut and into the Atlantic Ocean.
The study will examine the impact of nitrogen pollution on the waterway. According to Brown, when too much nitrogen enters a system, it stimulates algae growth, which can become unattractive for swimming and recreation.
When the algae blooms die, she said, they consume a lot of oxygen, creating “low-oxygen zones” that make it hard for fish to survive.
“It also erodes all the vegetation on the living shoreline,” Brown said. “The tidal marshes die off from too much nitrogen.”
She said there’s also a correlation between high nitrogen and “ocean acidification.” When that happens, shellfish can’t form hard enough shells, which then ends up hurting the shellfish industry.
“It’s bad for the fish, bad for your coastal communities because it’s causing decay on your tidal properties that protect you from storms and surges, and it’s bad for recreation and local economies,” Brown said. “People don’t want to go into the waters. It hurts tourism.”
High nitrogen can enter the waterway from wastewater infrastructure, lawn fertilizers and “atmospheric deposition,” she said.
Every bay and harbor, depending on its location and size, also reacts differently to the stress from nitrogen. Some waterways flush well, are bigger and can absorb the nitrogen. The more shallow bays cannot.
In Queens, where the waterways lead up to the Long Island Sound on the western end, there isn’t a big, tidal flushing from the Atlantic Ocean that the eastern end of the sound receives, Brown said.
The study was funded not by public funding, but by a group of “strategic philanthropists” called the Long Island Sound Funders Collaborative. The group is made up of community and family foundations throughout the waterway.
The collective funded the Long Island Sound report card, which is published by Save the Sound.
“Part of that is possible because the Funders Collaborative has representatives from all these communities,” Brown said. “You’ve got little foundations that have very location relationships and can say to their local groups, ‘We want you to look at the study and think about participating in it.’”
So far, 12 participating groups are out in 24 bays and harbors. They monitor and measure the water systems from May through October.
“They actually have to get out and it all has to happen within three hours of sunrise,” Brown said. “Everyone gets out around dawn, because that’s what you have to do to get an accurate measure of oxygen levels before the sun gets in there and photosynthesis starts to pump oxygen out of the plants in the water.”
Save the Sound provides all of the equipment, training and protocols to conduct the study.
Brown said the groups will repeat the measurements every year “for as long as we can keep the funding going.” Their plan is to increase the number of bays and harbors measured.
Another dozen groups have already expressed interest in helping out next year, she said.
When the study is finished, Save the Sound will include the results in their 2020 report card and share it online on their website.
New York and Connecticut’s city and state environmental agencies will receive the data when it’s released.
“That will be a roadmap to get investments from EPA, New York State and Connecticut State, local municipalities and the city,” Brown said. “They can prioritize their dollars for nitrogen reduction to really help the systems that are failing the most.”
Brown noted that New York City made a “big investment” in wastewater treatment plants on the sound to reduce nitrogen. Advocates said they’ve seen improving water quality already.
“We actually are seeing a positive trend in the open sound now,” she said. “Those kinds of investments have been really meaningful and make a difference. Good work, but more to be done.”